On September 1, 2016, police in Bordentown, New Jersey, got a call from the manager at a local Ramada Inn. The manager told the dispatcher two teenagers had used the pool without paying for a room. This rather mundane call set in motion a chain of events that led to the chief of police being charged with a federal hate crime, the first case of its kind in at least ten years.
When officers arrived, they located Timothy Stroye, 18, and a 16-year-old female. Stroye was still wet from the pool, clad in white shorts. A confrontation ensued, and the officers called for backup.
A shouting match escalated into a physical struggle. A lieutenant, who had a preexisting back problem, was injured. Stroye got pepper sprayed and handcuffed. The teenage girl’s aunt, who witnessed the encounter, screamed at the officers.
What happened next is hazy. As police walked Stroye out of the hotel, an officer allegedly slammed the teen’s head against a metal door jam. At the police station, Stroye told an EMS technician he was having an asthma attack, and he feared he had suffered a concussion. He chose not to go to the hospital, however, to avoid delays in processing his case.
According to federal prosecutors, the officer who hit Stroye was Bordentown Township police chief and business administrator, Frank Nucera Jr. They alleged the assault was driven by bias against African-Americans.
That’s a step federal prosecutors opted not to take in higher profile cases of people who were killed by law enforcement. The deaths of Michael Brown in Missouri and Freddie Gray in Baltimore sparked massive protests and riots in 2014 and 2015. The officers involved in those encounters were not charged in federal court.
It is difficult to bring criminal deprivation of rights indictments against law enforcement because police have wide latitude to use force if they believe an individual is threatening public safety, whether the person is armed or not. With Nucera, prosecutors felt they had sufficient proof to convince a jury the now-retired chief used unreasonable force and he was motivated by racial bias.
Nucera’s defense attorney, Rocco Cipparone Jr., said his client is innocent of the assault and one of the other officers caused the teen’s head injury.
Stroye himself said several officers struck him. He told the FBI he was handcuffed while lying on the ground. One officer pressed his knee against Stroye’s face and another pressed his knee against the teen’s back, according to notes from an FBI interview. After the police brought Stroye to his feet, he asked for their names. They did not respond although Stroye remembered one was referred to as “chief.” His vision was blurry from pepper spray.
While the precise details of the altercation may never be known, the chief’s reaction to Stroye’s arrest was captured in audio recordings. Sergeant Nathan Roohr had been secretly making tapes for months because he felt Nucera created a toxic work environment, and he found the chief’s remarks about minorities offensive. The FBI investigation revealed that at least nine other officers were using hidden recording devices, as they reportedly shared Roorh’s concerns.
Last Tuesday, a federal judge in Camden, New Jersey denied a defense motion to dismiss the indictment, clearing the way for the retired chief to go on trial.
“I’m tired of them, man”
The Nucera tapes contain profane rants against African-Americans, Hispanics and Muslims. Nucera repeatedly referred to Stroye using the N-word.
The chief complained the Ramada call was a waste of resources caused by “six unruly f—–g n—–s,” according to court documents.
He described the struggle to handcuff Stroye: ” F—–g little f—–g n—–. He was built pretty stocky though. When you put cocoa butter on that skin and come out of the pool, it’s like trying to hold down a f—–g snake.”
In another recording, Nucera said, “I’m f—–g tired of them, man. I’ll tell you what, it’s gonna get to the point where I could shoot one of these m—-rf—–s. And that n—-r b—h lady, she almost got it.”
Roohr gave the FBI 81 audio recordings of Nucera made between 2015 and 2016. Agents then provided the sergeant with devices to continue taping the chief.
He became a government witness, wired for sound and directed by the FBI to discuss Stroye’s arrest with the chief. Roohr repeatedly said he was worried about a potential civil lawsuit for excessive force in an effort to elicit a confession from the chief.
“He’s a nut”
Nucera’s comments in court records are peppered with references to President Donald Trump. The Ramada incident took place during the final weeks of the 2016 campaign.
One officer told the FBI Nucera predicted “they” (African-Americans) would be unhappy if Trump got elected because he would take away “free rides.”
In a recording made on the day of Stroye’s arrest, Nucera said, “Donald Trump is the last hope for white people, ’cause Hillary will give it to all the minorities to get a vote. That’s the truth! I’m telling you. I think about that more and more. He is, he’s the last hope for the f—–g white people cause she’s too (UI). All the seven mothers that were at the Democratic National Convention saying, ‘The police killed my kids.'”
Still, Nucera questioned Trump’s temperament.
“He’s a nut,” Nucera said, adding that he wasn’t planning to vote.
Nucera announced his retirement in January 2017. Less than a year after he stepped down, he was indicted with hate crime assault, deprivation of rights under color of law and making false statements.
The retired chief pleaded not guilty and was released on $500,000 bail. Cipparone, Nucera’s attorney, declined to answer a list of detailed questions submitted by CNN.
The Nucera case is unique because hate crimes are usually prosecuted by local authorities rather than the federal government, said Rebecca Sturtevant, a spokeswoman for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The retired chief appears to be the first cop in at least a decade to be charged with a federal hate crime in conjunction with his job as a law enforcement officer, according to a search of the Pacer case locator database and Justice Department sources.
Stroye pleaded guilty to third degree assault of a police officer in state court. The judge sentenced him to six months in county jail. He was released on probation on July 15, 2017, according to the Burlington County court clerk. Stroye is currently incarcerated at the Bucks County Correctional Facility in Pennsylvania, where he is being held pending trial on charges of writing a worthless check and access device fraud. This year, he has also pled guilty to possession of drug paraphernalia, public drunkenness and use of a motor vehicle without the owner’s consent. Calls to Stroye’s attorney, Nathan Criste, and the Bucks County Correctional Facility were not returned.
The nation’s moral compass
The Justice Department has a mandate to enforce federal civil rights laws. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, the government played a critical role implementing desegregation in the South. The Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department was established in 1957 to enforce “federal statutes prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, disability, religion, familial status and national origin.”
As part of its mission to protect the rights of vulnerable populations, the Civil Rights Division prosecutes select cases involving hate crimes and/or police misconduct. The Division, which also files civil suits related to sexual harassment, voting rights, housing discrimination and religious liberty, has been described on Capitol Hill as the “nation’s moral compass.”
In one of the Division’s most prominent police violence cases, four LAPD officers were charged with deprivation of rights under color of law after beating motorist Rodney King during a traffic stop in 1991. Although a state trial ended with acquittals — leading to riots in Los Angeles — the officers were later indicted by the Justice Department. Two of them, Stacey C. Koon and Laurence M. Powell got convicted and sentenced to 30 months in prison. The other two defendants, Timothy E. Wind, and Theodore J. Briseno were acquitted.
Just last month, the Division charged four St. Louis police officers in connection with an assault during a street protest last year. The victim was actually an undercover detective dispatched to monitor the crowd. He was thrown to the ground, struck with a riot baton and kicked in the face, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
In messages obtained by prosecutors, one of the officers expressed an eagerness to engage in violent confrontations with demonstrators: “It’s gonna get IGNORANT tonight!! But it’s gonna be a lot of fun beating the hell out of these s——-s once the sun goes down and nobody can tell us apart!!!”
The officers have all pleaded not guilty.
The Civil Rights Division is led by Assistant Attorney General, Eric Dreiband, who was confirmed in October by a 50-47 Senate vote. He is a corporate labor lawyer who worked for Kenneth Starr on the Whitewater investigation and was later appointed by President George W. Bush to serve as general counsel for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. During his confirmation hearing, Democrats grilled him on his opposition to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and he declined to state definitively that workplace anti-discrimination laws apply to LGBT employees.
In a statement about the St. Louis case, Dreiband said, “The Justice Department will continue to investigate and prosecute matters involving allegations of federal criminal civil rights violations.”
Federal excessive force prosecutions are relatively rare because the government must prove an officer specifically set out to deprive a victim of his or her constitutional rights, per a 1945 Supreme Court decision known as Screws V. United States. In that case, the high court overturned the convictions of a Georgia sheriff and two deputies for the beating death of an African-American prisoner because the trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury they must find the defendants acted “willfully,” with the purpose of violating the victim’s rights.
In recent years, the FBI has investigated the deaths of unarmed black men during police encounters, including the shooting of Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the Gray case in Baltimore. Although the officers were not charged, the DOJ issued extensive reports on each city’s police department and mandated reforms in civil agreements called consent decrees. (Former attorney general Jeff Sessions signed a memo on his last day in office limiting the DOJ’s role in police reform via consent decree).
Proving Nucera committed a hate crime, in addition to willful deprivation of rights, is a tough task for prosecutors. The government is planning to play Roohr’s tapes in the courtroom to back its allegation that the chief hit Stroye out of hatred of African-Americans.
In an omnibus motion to dismiss the indictment, the defense questioned the FBI’s use of unauthorized cellphone recordings to build a case against the retired chief, arguing the investigation grew out of internal politics at the police department. During a hearing at the federal courthouse in Camden last Tuesday, the judge ruled that the issues raised by Nucera’s attorney did not warrant tossing the indictment.
The crossroads of New Jersey
Bordentown Township, population 12,202, is a Philadelphia suburb on the banks of the Delaware River where the median household income is about $86,000 and more than 75% of residents are white. Originally settled by Quakers, the township is the self-proclaimed “crossroads of the heart of New Jersey,” 45 miles upriver from Philadelphia and about 65 miles southwest of New York City. A two-mile stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike curves through the east side of Bordentown.
Nucera, 61, served with the Bordentown police for 34 years, working his way up to chief and administrator. He put in long hours and boasted of running the township “like a business.”
Aside from a mysterious 2014 mishap in which the chief was shot in the leg with his own gun by a juvenile in the tax collector’s office, Nucera had a seemingly noncontroversial career.
There was trouble beneath the surface. Roohr and his colleagues told the FBI that the chief was verbally abusive, but they didn’t report him in fear of retaliation. In a police department with a roster of 28 sworn officers, at least ten were surreptitiously recording their interactions with Nucera.
Nucera’s attorney doesn’t dispute that his client used racial slurs, but he argued in his court filing there’s a shortage of evidence to substantiate the charge that the chief hit Stroye.
Cipparone wanted two separate trials, with standalone proceedings for the hate crime assault charge so the jury could determine whether there’s proof beyond reasonable doubt Nucera pushed Stroye into the door. The judge denied this request at the hearing last Tuesday.
Tracking hate and excessive force
Every year, the FBI publishes the Uniform Crime Report, an overview based on stats from local police departments. It is an incomplete snapshot of crime in the United States, since participation is voluntary and law enforcement agencies can opt out of sharing info with the federal government.
The bureau launched a program last year called the National Use-of-Force Data Collection. The goal is to count the number of individuals who are killed or seriously injured by law enforcement annually. Participation is voluntary. As of December 2018, about 4,400 local agencies were enrolled in the program, according to an FBI spokeswoman. In comparison, 16,655 police departments provided the FBI with info for the bureau’s 2017 Uniform Crime Report.
“The lack of national data on police use of force incidents serves as one of the most significant impediments to identifying problems and implementing solutions,” the US Commission on Civil Rights, an independent federal watchdog agency, concluded in a report on modern policing practices and use of force.
The FBI does gather some lethal force data. The “killing of a felon” in the line of duty is called a “justifiable homicide” in the bureau’s annual crime report. According to the latest UCR, 429 individuals were killed by law enforcement in 2017. That is likely an undercount since local agencies are not required to share info with the FBI and the definition of a “justifiable homicide” is somewhat ambiguous. The Washington Post, which maintains its own database of fatal police shootings based on news reports, police websites and social media, estimated 985 people were killed by police in 2017.
A total of 65 individuals got charged with deprivation of civil rights under color of law during fiscal year 2018, according to the DOJ. Most defendants were law enforcement officers but color of law violations can also be committed by judges, prosecutors, government workers and private individuals aiding and abetting the police. Nucera is the only officer charged with deprivation of rights and hate crime assault, according to the DOJ.
The federal definition of a hate crime is: “An offense involving actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin. Whoever, whether or not acting under color of law, willfully causes bodily injury to any person or, through the use of fire, a firearm, a dangerous weapon, or an explosive or incendiary device, attempts to cause bodily injury to any person, because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin of any person.” Additionally, any offense committed against an individual because of actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability is also a hate crime.
The FBI has conducted major hate crime probes over the past two years. The bureau took the lead investigating the mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October, as well as the deadly Charlottesville protest and the murder of an Indian immigrant in Kansas City. For the most part, however, prosecuting bias-motivated violent crime is left to the states, according to Michael German, a former FBI agent and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program.
The FBI reported an increase in hate crimes during 2017 yet the bureau’s leadership has spotlighted other issues as its main areas of concern.
During an October 2018 speech at the International Association of Chiefs of Police Annual Conference, FBI director Christopher Wray listed the bureau’s priorities: “Terrorism, gang violence, espionage, hacking, opioid abuse, active shooters.”
The lost tapes
So why did the FBI get involved in the Nucera case?
At some point in September or October of 2016, Roohr called an old friend, Jacob Archer, a special agent at the FBI’s Philadelphia office who started his career as a Bordentown city police officer. Roohr visited Archer at his home to tell him about the Ramada incident. Archer referred Roohr to a special agent from the FBI’s New Jersey office, Arthur Durrant, who was involved in a 2007 investigation of the chief. The bureau looked into allegations Nucera misused funds during his tenure as the township fire commissioner, according to the Burlington County Times. (The 2007 investigation ended without charges being filed.)
Separately, Captain Brian Pesce of the Bordentown Police Department’s internal affairs unit prepared a complaint about the chief’s conduct and scheduled a meeting with the Burlington County prosecutor’s office but canceled after the FBI told him to hold off. (Pesce is now Bordentown police chief.)
Right from the start, Roohr told the FBI he had deleted some of his recordings, claiming there was nothing relevant in those files. In the motion to dismiss, Nucera’s attorney said a sworn police officer should know destroying evidence is a serious breach that can derail an investigation.
Nucera’s attorney also criticized the FBI for failing to conduct a forensic search of Roohr’s computer to retrieve the recordings that had been erased. The bureau’s experts routinely recover deleted files from computers.
“Those people don’t like dogs”
The prosecution’s court filings paint a portrait of a police chief whose misconduct was unchecked because employees felt intimidated by him. Officers said Nucera tended to escalate tense situations and railed against “towel heads,” “spics” and “moulinyans.” Even staffers who praised the chief admitted he made jokes laced with racial slurs.
The chief could be compassionate — he once helped a fire victim pay for a hotel room — but he also had a vindictive side, officers told the FBI.
Nucera is accused of sending K-9 officers to the high school for basketball games when the visiting team was predominantly black. According to court documents, Nucera said words to the effect of, “We’re going to have dogs working that night because those people don’t like dogs.”
At an active shooter training drill, Nucera allegedly embarrassed an African-American officer. Before loaning the officer a GoPro camera to wear on his head, the chief warned him not to get grease on it.
In November 2015, squad members discovered one of the police vehicles had a flat tire in the station parking lot. Nucera said he suspected the tire had been slashed as an act of revenge by an African-American man who’d been arrested for disorderly conduct.
“I wish that n—– would come back from Trenton and give me a reason to put my hands on him, I’m tired of ’em,” Nucera said, according to court documents. “These n—-s are like ISIS, they have no value. They should line them all up and mow ’em down. I’d like to be on the firing squad. I could do it.”
An incestuous “witch hunt”
If everyone was troubled by the chief’s behavior, they should have spoken out sooner, Nucera’s attorney, Cipparone wrote in his motion to dismiss. For instance, the New Jersey attorney general’s office has strict guidelines for the deployment of police dogs. A chief who uses K-9 teams to intimidate minorities could be charged with deprivation of rights under New Jersey state law, according to Cipparone.
The defense described the FBI investigation as a “witch hunt” fueled by workplace grievances rather than concern about excessive force or intolerance.
Multiple officers told the FBI the chief was stingy with overtime assignments, and three cops claimed he docked their pay as a disciplinary measure. Many said Nucera was fixated on generating revenue for the township with traffic citations.
Nucera’s attorney wrote that his client was a tough, fiscally responsible boss overseeing resentful subordinates who leveraged personal relationships to make a federal case out of a botched arrest rife with misconduct by all involved.
The chief repeatedly denied hitting Stroye in the tapes obtained by prosecutors.
“To me there was no indication that anybody was injured other than the normal amount of force to put somebody in custody,” Nucera said. “You know, it’s like Timoney said, ‘How do you arrest somebody nicely that doesn’t want to be arrested?'”